It’s hard to gain full appreciation for Jafar Panahi’s latest film without knowing a bit about his personal story. Panahi cut his filmmaking teeth by working with the great Abbas Kiarostami. He showed himself to be a major component of the Iranian New Wave movement with his 1995 acclaimed film “The White Balloon”. But while recognized as a brilliant and highly influential filmmaker, Panahi quickly found himself in the crosshairs of the Iranian government.
In 2010 Panahi was arrested along with his wife and daughter. He was charged with making propaganda films against the Iranian government and for committing crimes which threatened national security. He was sentenced to six years of house arrest, was forbidden to leave the country, and was given a 20 year ban on making movies or documentaries. Despite his steep sentencing, Panahi has continued to secretly make films and address many of his society’s ills.
“Taxi” is another bold movie where Panahi makes clever use of his obvious constraints. All conventional methods of filmmaking are out the window yet “Taxi” feels just as revealing and just as organic. It is basically a documentary but with a sly touch of drama. Its main focus is to show the varying degrees of life, personalities, ideals, hardships, and persecution in modern day Tehran society.
Panahi does this by simply posing as a cab driver. He drives around Tehran picking up as assortment of people and filming their conversations through carefully placed dash-cams. They cover all age groups, male and female, and come from a variety of unique (and sometimes troubling) perspectives. None are trained professional actors, but each offer some truly compelling insight into elements of the culture that Panahi clearly wants people talking about.
Panahi’s interaction with the people is often fascinating. Some are just quirky individuals who he allows to carry on. Take a fellow who sells pirated DVDs. At one point he actually recognizes Panahi, but that doesn’t stop him from his shady dealings. Other characters unknowingly offer Panahi the opportunity to indict certain mindsets without the director saying a word.
There are some interactions that feel a bit too scripted even though they have strong messages, and there are a couple of moments where the pacing sputters a bit. But at the same time “Taxi” always kept my attention, and it had me absorbing every encounter to find how they fit with Panahi’s vision. This wasn’t an easy project to pull off, but its strengths testify to the brilliance of its maker.
VERDICT – 4 STARS